A Physical Therapist's Guide to Calf Strain: Part One - Fort Lee Physical Therapy - Fort Lee, NJ
Hyun J. (June) Park,  PT, DPT, CIDN

Hyun J. (June) Park, PT, DPT, CIDN

Dr Hyun Park graduated from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) with a Doctorate in Physical Therapy. She is certified in dry needling by the Integrative Dry Needling Institute and a member of the APTA (American Physical Therapy Association).

A Physical Therapist’s Guide to Calf Strain: Part One

A calf strain is caused by overstretching or tearing any one of the 9 muscles of the calf. Calf strains can occur suddenly - but they can also happen slowly over time. When a calf strain occurs activities such as walking, climbing stairs, or running can be painful, difficult, or even impossible.

Lately I have been asked a few times about calf strain – so I thought it was time to write another two part blog to educate you on the injury, and how physical therapy can help. The key with this injury is recognition, because there is a difference between sore muscles and an actual strain.

This injury is a common problem for runners, soccer and basketball players, gymnasts, and also dancers. In addition advancing age can increase the vulnerability of the calf to injury and strain with less forceful movements – which means you don’t have to be an athlete to suffer from one.

What is a Calf Strain?

To start things off let me talk a bit about the calf muscle – which actually consists of 9 different muscles. The gastrocnemius, soleus, and plantaris muscles attach onto the heel bone – and together they produce the downward motion of the foot. The other 6 muscles – the popliteus, flexor digitorum longus, flexor hallucis longus, tibialis posterior, and the fibularis (or peroneal) longus and brevis – cause knee, toe, and foot movements in different directions. They extend from the lower leg bones around the sides of the ankle and attach to various parts of the foot and toes.

A calf strain is caused by overstretching or tearing any one of the 9 muscles of the calf. Calf strains can occur suddenly – but they can also happen slowly over time. When a calf strain occurs activities such as walking, climbing stairs, or running can be painful, difficult, or even impossible.

About Muscle Strain

A muscle strain is graded according to the amount of muscle damage that has occurred:

– Grade 1. This is a mild or partial stretch or tearing of a few muscle fibers. In this case the muscle is tender and painful, but maintains all of its normal strength. With grade 1 the use of the leg is not impaired, and you can walk normally.
– Grade 2. A moderate stretch or tearing of a greater percentage of the muscle fibers is considered a grade 2 strain. When a grade 2 strain occurs you might feel a snapping or pulling sensation. With this grade there is more tenderness and pain, a noticeable loss of strength, and even bruising in some cases. You will notice that the use of the leg is impaired, and you will start to limping while walking.
– Grade 3. This is the most severe tear of muscle fibers – sometimes even a complete muscle tear. You will feel and/or hear “popping” sound when the injury occurs. Bruising is apparent, and sometimes you can even see a “dent” under the skin where the muscle is torn. In this case use of your leg is extremely difficult, and putting any weight on the leg is very painful.

How Does it Feel?

If you strain your calf muscles, you may feel one (or more) of the following:

– A sharp pain or weakness in the back of your lower leg. The pain can either quickly resolve, or it can persist.
– A feeling of tightness or weakness in the calf area.
– Throbbing pain while your leg is resting.
– Sharp stabs of pain occurring when you try to stand or walk on your leg.
– Sharp pain in the back of the lower leg when you try to stretch/move your ankle or knee.

Signs and Symptoms

With a calf strain, you may experience:
– A snap or pull felt or heard at the time of injury (Grade 1 and 2).
– A “pop” may be felt or heard at the time of injury (Grade 3).
– General pain and weakness in the calf area.
– Limping.
– Swelling, tightness, and bruising.
– Weakness in the calf when trying to walk, climb stairs, or stand up.
– Difficulty performing tasks that require standing and walking.
– An inability to run or jump on the injured leg.

So – that just about covers the basics of calf strains. As with the rest of my two part series make sure you check back next week. The next post will cover diagnosis, how physical therapy can help, and what you can expect in your treatment plan.

As always if you have any questions feel free to leave a comment for me below or give the clinic a call to speak with one of our therapists, we are always happy to help.

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